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Volume 17, Number 3
Mises at the Millennium
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
In this year of Millennium Lists ("Best Ten Songs of the Millennium,"
etc.), the Wall Street Journal tried its hand at the ten economists--whom
it called the "best and brightest"--who have "made a difference" in the last
thousand years. Of course, the big problem in twentieth-century
intellectual history is that the "best and the brightest" were not the ones
who "made a difference." While the list did contain some names to cheer
(Aquinas, Hayek, and Schumpeter) it also had plenty to boo (Marx, Keynes,
One name was conspicuously missing from this list: Ludwig von Mises. Though
the brightest and the best, Mises said he did not make the difference he
started out to make. He set out as a reformer for freedom, but regarded
himself as a "historian of decline." That is a commentary on the brutal and
statist century in which he lived, however, not on his accomplishments,
which are monumental.
His advances in economic theory are immense. He integrated the two main
branches of economics by demonstrating the origin of the value of money. He
demonstrated that socialist doctrine was contrary to economic logic. He
showed that business cycles stem from central-bank mismanagement. He set
out the philosophical foundations of economic science itself.
All of this would have been enough, but assessing greatness is about more
than weighing the relative importance of scientific discoveries. Mises is a
singular person in the history of ideas not only because of what he
explained but also because of what he fought. He waged a fierce
intellectual battle against every destructive political ideology and
economic fallacy of our century, and paid a huge personal price as a
result. Truth, not fashion or fame, was his guiding light.
The problem of being out of step confronted Mises as he set out to complete
his great work, Human Action.
The introduction to the Scholar's Edition sheds new light on the terrible difficulties he faced just
book published. He found a friendly editor at Yale University Press (Eugene
Davidson), but many economists who were consulted in advance of publication
tried to kill the project.
A socialist wrote the publisher to say that Mises's ideas were outmoded. A
positivist said his theories were not scientific. And, tragically, two
former students of Mises's who had been drawn into the Keynesian orbit
attempted to suppress the manuscript. Today, we take Human Action for
granted, but on reflection, it seems almost miraculous that book ever got
out of the Publications Committee.
Of all the names on the Wall Street Journal's list, none put together an
economic text as systematic and comprehensive as Human Action, which is
clearly the greatest book on economics ever written. That is why it has
stayed continuously in print since its publication in 1949, and why
(despite bumps along the way) it has been translated in so many different
On the fiftieth anniversary of this masterpiece, the Mises Institute
published the Scholar's Edition to restore Mises's all-encompassing work
to its original state. Reading it again, one can only marvel at the
fantastic intellectual drive it took to complete the project, the courage
it required to cut through all the socialist and Keynesian nonsense that
dominated the intellectual landscape at the time, and the vision it
required to spell out so completely and rigorously the economic basis of a
I often wish that Mises had lived to see our present situation. During the
last decade, overgrown regimes of all sorts have crumbled or fallen into
moral disrepute. The ideology of planning is increasingly outmoded.
Students all over the world are discovering Mises for the first time. And
Misesians in every field are waging guerilla warfare against what remains
of the old socialist left.
In the end, it turns out that Mises was not a historian of decline but a
prophet of things to come. He never gave up the fight, not even after
witnessing the carnage and wars and destruction inflicted by governments in
this bloodiest of centuries. In the end, we are compelled to observe a
thousand times, and with greatest admiration and respect for his genius,
that Mises was right when most everyone else was wrong.
And yet he was more than right. He was courageous. He was determined. He
never gave up. And generations in the next century and beyond will know his
name and his work, even as the likes of Keynes and Marx will someday be
synonymous with the folly perpetuated by their ideas.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute. Further
Reading: "Introduction to the Scholar's Edition," in Human Action (The
Mises Institute, 1998).